The Toronto Raptors tied the Houston Rockets for best home record in the NBA last night with their 112-101 victory over the Orlando Magic. There won’t be too much to take away from these last three games, but we’ll be on the lookout for some positive trends heading in to the postseason.
The other day I mentioned this season presents the most ideal window for the Raptors to make it out of the East and into the NBA Finals. One of the things that plays into that ideal window is health. The Raptors have had no significant injuries all season, whereas most of their competitors in the East have seen major players lose time.
(Please picture me furiously knocking on every wood surface I can find.)
All of which means, with the top seed sown up, it’s time to be extra careful down the stretch. DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas got last night off, and both Lucas Nogueira and Fred VanVleet left the game early; Bebe had a sore hamstring and VanVleet had a stiff back, neither of which sounded too serious (again, please find wood to rap) but the team took extra caution and sat ‘em down. (Norman Powell, starting in place of DeRozan, also tweaked an ankle, but returned.)
Unfortunately, with all of the 905ers at the G-League Finals, Dwane Casey had a short bench to work with, which meant an extended run for Kyle Lowry, even as the Raptors’ lead ballooned to 22 in the fourth quarter. But thankfully, he emerged unscathed.
Keep the Good Habits Up
The Raptors didn’t hold Orlando under 80 like they did their last two opponents, but we’ll forgive them, since they were missing four bodies plus their G-Leaguers. Still, many of the defensive habits we saw in the past two games were on display again tonight, including deflections and shot contests at the rim (overall the Raptors contested 65 of Orlando’s 89 attempts).
A few bad habits did creep in, notably turnovers (17 on the night) but again, you can chalk that up to unfamiliarity and missing two of your primary ballhandlers in DeRozan and VanVleet.
One other good sign: the 3-point shot was dropping for the Raptors last night. We all know how important the deep ball is gonna be in the playoffs, so here’s hoping last night’s 42.5% from long range is the start of an ongoing trend.
Get in Rhythm
OK, it’s pretty hard for the team to get into a rhythm when guys are shuffling in and out of the lineup and we’re seeing starters and player combinations we rarely see.
But for the individual players, these games are perfect to work out some kinks in extended runs, to get up shots at game speed and hopefully, gain some confidence.
It’s what C.J. Miles needs, that’s for certain. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one hoping these three final games would be slump-busters for him. Last night was a great start—game-high 22 points, including 5-of-10 from downtown (and fouled shooting 3-pointers two other times, where he went 5-for-6 at the line). Perhaps more importantly, after looking at times recently like he’d forgotten how to play basketball, Miles got through his 24 minutes without a foul or a turnover.
One game doesn’t make a trend though, so let’s see C.J. carry this over the next two—and into the postseason.
As for other guys getting in rhythm, quick shout-out to Powell, who came back from that turned ankle and shot 5-for-11 (including three 3-pointers) and had two steals. You just know at some point in the postseason Powell’s number is gonna get called, so—much like with Miles—it’s critical for Norm to see some shots go down and head into the postseason with confidence.
What a Game for OG Anunoby
Another guy who used the extra time to his advantage was OG Anunoby. When he hit his first 3-pointer, I was immediately hopeful—and then he bricked his next attempt. And then he airballed his third attempt!
It was all uphill from there though, as he nailed 3-pointer no. 4 and went on to hit 5-of-8 and score a career-high 21 points in 34 minutes (his most minutes played in a game since the first week of January).
How Anunoby performs in the playoffs—and how much run Casey gives him—is one of the most fascinating subplots to me. When he’s locked in on defense, Anunoby is indispensable. But his offense has been streaky (like most rookies) and we’ve already seen playoff-bound teams leave him open to focus in on Lowry and DeRozan. Remember when OG shot 45% in from 3-point range in November-December? That’s the OG we need in the playoffs to keep defenses honest, although I think he’d need to shoot more than the 3.1 attempts per game he took in that early-season timeframe to make an impact.
Last night was definitely a step in the right direction.
As for Anunoby’s defense—check out OG and Kyle defending this 3-on-2 Magic break. Anunoby sticks to the ballhandler, leaving Jamel Artis open for the layup—but Anunoby recovers to block the shot! As this young man’s confidence grows, I think we’re gonna be treated to some sensational blocks and dunks in the years to come.
Can we Talk 905 for a Second?
The G-League is not my beat and I certainly don’t follow it day-to-day, but like most Raps fans, I keep aware of how the Raptors 905 team is doing. They won the title last year and are back in the Finals this year, and although they dropped game 1 of the best-of-3 series last night, just being there is a testament to the team, the coaching staff, and the Raptors organization.
It’s no accident that 4 out of 5 members of the highly-successful Bench Mob unit had stints with the 905 last season; Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam both came up big in those Finals, with Siakam winning Finals MVP (pour one out for Bruno Caboclo, who scored 31 in the clinching game!).
When we talk about this being the most successful era in Raptors history, the 905, and the way the organization has developed young players (and coaches too!) has to be part of the story.
That’s 80 games in the books. Phew! We’re getting there! We’ll see who gets the night off tonight in Detroit—my money is on both Lowry and Ibaka resting—but even so, should be another win for the Raptors.